Aughinish Alumina has insisted that it has never caused any environmental damage to the Askeaton area and that it operates to the highest health and safety standards.
This follows comments made in Seanad Eireann this week by Senator Gerard Craughwell, who claimed there had been “several spills” on site and that some employees had suffered damage to their eyes as a result of being splashed with caustic soda.
Mr Craughwell, who said he previously worked in Aughinish, described the red mud ponds, which contain the waste left over from the alumina processing plant, as “highly toxic”.
“I worked in the fire and security service there. Part of our job was to put on chemical suits and look after employees when there was a spill. Every 200 metres on the site there is a shower in case a employee is splashed with caustic soda, which is brought in by the truckload every day. If a person is splashed with caustic soda, it will burn right through. Employees had to stand naked under a shower for 20 minutes until they were collected by an ambulance and brought to the medical centre. There were people who lost their eyesight in at least one eye. There have been several spills on the site,” Sen Craughwell claimed.
He made his comments during a debate on a new Environment Bill, during which a number of other senators, including Limerick’s James Heffernan, raised concerns about the fact that there is no financial bond in place to cover the cost of cleaning up the Aughinish site.
Mr Craughwell also pointed out that the plant was built on a limestone base.
“The first mud pond was covered in a rubber lining to stop any leakage. If the lining goes, we have no idea where the toxins from the red mud will go and where in the Aughinish area they will be deposited. It is a large farming area. There is a serious concern, particularly regarding issues such as bonding. I do not want to play down the seriousness of the problem or falsely accuse Aughinish Alumina of any damage, although there are environmental questions that must be answered and that have not been dealt with since the plant opened,” he said.
The independent senator cited an instance where geese had been brought from Canada to Aughinish. “Although I may be wrong, as far as I recall, caustic soda burned the feet off the geese and they had to be put down,” he said.
“The moment one walks through the gate of the plant, one is immediately aware of the fact that one is in a highly dangerous environment. Everything about the day’s work is controlled by the knowledge that one is exposed to caustic soda.
“The process of extracting alumina from bauxite requires thousands of gallons of caustic soda, as well as sulphuric acid, lime, and sodium aluminium fluoride. Between all those substances and the red mud that is going out, there are some serious chemicals lying around in an open area. At one stage, Aughinish Alumina explored the possibility of using the red mud to make concrete blocks, which failed. For years, it has been trying to find something to do with the red mud waste, which will be left there like nuclear waste for generations.”
In his contribution to the debate, Senator James Heffernan described the licencing arrangement granted by the EPA to Aughinish as “certainly questionable”.
“One meeting of the EPA recommended that Aughinish would have to put a bond in place to protect the citizens against potential environmental catastrophe, and that potential is there,” he said.
“At a subsequent meeting of the EPA, however, the clause to have the bond in place to protect us was completely omitted from the licensing arrangement. I cannot understand how that can be allowed to happen and how a State agency can grant a licence to what is a known polluter under European regulations without any bond being in place.”
While Aughinish was not in a position to comment on the specific claims made at the time of going to print, a spokesman said: “As you know, various allegations have been made against Aughinish Alumina Limited over the years, none of which have been substantiated. Aughinish has never been found to have caused any damage to the Askeaton area. The plant is operated to the highest health and safety standards. Aughinish takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously and its operations are carried out strictly in accordance with the licence granted to it by the Environmental Protection Agency.”